Mayor had no authority to fire McKenney

Published 12:35 pm Saturday, September 5, 2015

Police Chief Jeffrey McKenney’s employment with the town of Newsoms was terminated by Mayor Kenneth Wayne Cooke on Aug. 18, a decision that town council member Judith Rose said the mayor made on his own authority.

“He never told us nothing about what he knew last year,” Rose said, referencing a letter that Southampton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Cooke wrote to Mayor Cooke in October 2014 with regard to his lack of trust in the police chief. “If our mayor knew, why didn’t he bring it to our attention? He didn’t ask town council [to fire McKenney], either, and it’s supposed to be unanimous … Kenny’s overstepped his bounds.”

Rose also stated that town council would not have moved to relieve McKenney of his duties had they been made aware of Commonwealth’s Attorney Cooke’s letter, which referenced a grand jury indictment in which McKenney was charged with one felony count of obtaining money under false pretenses from the Dinwiddie County Sheriff’s Department, simply because the mayor did not see it as an issue when he hired the chief. The charges against McKenney were ultimately dropped.

“It wouldn’t have mattered because the mayor thought it was okay at the time he was hired, and we agreed,” she said. “Jeff even told Kenny [about the indictment] when he was interviewing.”

In a letter dated Aug. 17, the mayor gave McKenney the option of resigning with four weeks severance pay or be relieved of his duties, citing excessive overtime hours the latter allegedly accumulated and his perceived lack of credibility. The officer did not respond to the letter by the Aug. 18 deadline that the mayor had imposed and was ultimately terminated.

“I continued working after I received the letter from Kenny Cooke because I knew he did not have the authority to hire or fire personnel in the town of Newsoms,” McKenney said. “I knew all of this was going on behind council’s back, and that I had done nothing wrong and that I had worked with the utmost integrity in the town of Newsoms, and I was going to continue to work as normal until a special meeting was held and we could get the situation resolved

“I’m a man of integrity. I’ve never lied under oath. I’ve always performed this job with the utmost professionalism, and I’ve always treated people like I’ve wanted to be treated in that particular situation,” McKenney continued. “When I was appointed chief, Kenny gave us a real basic contract that said [to work] 50 hours a week, but nothing about overtime in it.

“It is available if you can work it. You can work as many hours a week as you want to. The unlimited overtime was actually approved by the council.”

McKenney explained that the town council initially approved only 20 hours of overtime per week during his off weeks, as the officers typically work one week and have the next off, and then gradually raised the hours available to its current status as the funds were able to pay for it.

“As long as the money can sustain it, then you can work as much as you want,” he said. “With that, you had more protection, more visibility, deterrents to crime and more traffic enforcement.”

Rose said that Mayor Cooke was the ultimate decision-maker when it came to the police force’s overtime procedures, something that town bylaws should dictate. Attempts by The Tidewater News to locate such bylaws were unsuccessful, and Rose acknowledged that they do not exist.

“No bylaws exist, and we know that because [McKenney’s attorney] Jack Randall has been looking for them. The town was established in 1946 by a judge and no bylaws were ever created by any of the six lawyers who have been mayor … Kenny gave permission to the officers to work whatever [they wanted]. The vice mayor also gave carte blanche and said, ‘Do what you want.’”

Attempts to contact Vice Mayor Harvey Porter and Town Attorney Tim Drewry have remained unsuccessful, despite continued efforts to reach both.